Liz Smith

Walking the Walk

by Carolyn S. Ellis

Ms. Ellis is Features Editor for LIFE&Health Advisor. Connect with her by e-mail: cellis@lifehealth.com

As president of the employee benefits division at Assurance Brokerage headquartered in Schaumberg, Illinois, Liz Smith has overseen tremendous growth in employee benefit revenue, and that begins, she says, with a philosophy rooted in providing programs aimed at improving the overall quality of the employee experience. Moreover, those attitudes are nurtured, and practiced, within the walls of her own company. We talked with Ms. Smith about the strategies Assurance uses to create a health-focused and to mitigate and manage increasing costs associated with the Affordable Care Act.

L&HA: Assurance has earned many awards for having a workplace environment that supports and encourages employees.
LS: An important factor in my decision to join Assurance is that management holds employees in high regard. Our No. 1 asset is our employees. We put a lot of effort into assuring that we’re taking care of them and allowing for work-life balance. Our tag-line is “Minimizing Risk, Maximizing Health.” That’s our goal not only for our clients but also internally for our employees. In 2013 we were ranked 6th best workplace in the U.S. in our category by Fortune magazine. Plus we’ve managed twenty-something percent growth every year for the last five years so it’s been pretty exciting.

L&HA: How do you provide ways for employees to minimize risk and maximize health?
LS: With our wellness program there are opportunities ranging from fitness classes and blitzes to learning lunches. We have a shared success program that is very cool. It’s like a profit-sharing program. We set goals and there’s an opportunity for all employees to receive a bonus at the end of the year. In 2013, our goal was to have 85% of our employees complete a 5K run/walk. We ended up with over 90% of our employees that ran or walked the 5k.

L&HA: You’re in the enviable position as head of the employee benefits division to be not only preaching these strategies to your clients but also living them.
LS: Much of what we provide to our clients we have tried on ourselves. We find happy employees make happy clients. Our workplace culture helps us with client retention, and we share these principles in workshops on how to become a best place to work. Employers need to provide an environment to attract the best and brightest, and to retain those employees and get the most out of them.

L&HA: Have you found wellness programs reduce health care costs?    
LS: If you’ve got an engaged and healthier workforce ultimately your cost of health insurance and claims will go down because there will be fewer health issues and conditions. We’ve proved that on ourselves.

L&HA: Communicating with employees is key, but is it something new?
LS: The sad fact is that if you went into any company that has 100 employees on a health insurance plan and you surveyed those employees, I would say only 25% of them would have a good, solid understanding of their benefits. The other 75% don’t have a clue. We developed a communication team to help our clients better educate their employees and communicate the benefits and different perks they offer.

L&HA: So you’re saying employers are investing a great deal of money to provide good benefits, but they aren’t getting full value because their employees don’t understand what’s being provided?
LS: That’s correct. Our job is to help educate employees on the basics of what the benefit program offers, how to better use their benefits program, how to be a better consumer, and how to make better choices. Communication needs to be consistent, but many companies don’t have Human Resources (HR) people that can communicate everything. That’s where we differentiate ourselves.

Much of what we provide to our clients we have tried on ourselves. We find happy employees make happy clients

L&HA: Does providing benefits information on a regular basis require employees to spend more time on the job or at the office?
LS:  That’s a great question. Often we win business and new clients because of the resources we provide. We’ve got teams for wellness, communication, and compliance. If a client is interested in wellness, our wellness specialist works with their HR person to develop the wellness program, and then our wellness person executes on that. Is there some extra work? Absolutely. We’ve yet to hear push-back because the positive impact always outweighs any additional work that goes into it.

L&HA: Tell us how employers can use benefits to engage their employees and drive value to the bottom line.
LS: Historically health insurance has been used for just that. Companies today offer their employees a multi-faceted approach to employee benefits — provide protection and mitigate or minimize risk. At the same time we provide an opportunity to maximize their health. No pun intended here, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Putting in place programs for wellness or engagement, communication, or education isn’t going to have an immediate impact. It’s a 2-, 3-, or 5-year strategy that’s going to be worth it when they see the ROI.

L&HA: At Assurance how do you attract and retain Generation Y talent?
LS: We’ve found our clients in several industries have many Generation Y employees (ages 22-35) as well as staff through Baby Boomers, so we’ve had to come up with solutions that cover multi-generations. For example, we allow pretty flexible hours and you can choose to work remote. That could be 1-2 days a week or fulltime. Gen Y is a generation of instant gratification. They prefer Internet-based, fun and quirky, and collaborative. The in-house Olympics events we organize fit this model. If you’re wanting to attract and keep Gen Y individuals, flexibility is key.

L&HA: What impact are you seeing from the Affordable Care Act (ACA)? What are options and solutions are you working with for your client companies in all 50 states?
LS: With healthcare reform there’s no easy answer because of its intricacies. Depending on the industry you’re in and the makeup of your employees there are a lot of moving parts. There’s not one solution, and so we do a thorough analysis of each organization. It can come in forms of standard insurance. We have a leveraged captive for our clients if they’re a good fit. We have self-funding options that are really important for organizations with as few as 50 employees. We have our own insurance exchange that is a solution for certain clients that are smaller and are looking to do away with their coverage or potentially looking to do a defined contribution.

L&HA: Healthcare reform is the biggest issue in employee benefits.
LS: Reality is hitting a lot of organizations with the rate increases that they’re seeing, especially in the smaller market over the last 3 or 4 months, and there’s only more to come. How do our clients manage that? It’s becoming one of their top expenses.  All the companies that we’ve talked to say their intention is to continue to offer health insurance to all their employees. But the reality of that is a wait and see. The real question is will they be able to afford it or will it put them out of business? We’re being proactive, putting clients on a 3-5 year strategy to mitigate increases and get them to a place where they’re self-funded and have better control over costs. But there’s a lot that’s up in the air. Several things have changed multiple times since the law’s been put in place.

L&HA: What’s your best advice to companies in a benefits world dominated by the ACA?
LS: Health insurance cost is expensive and it’s going to continue to rise at a pretty rapid pace. The only way to combat that is to get people healthier and making better decisions. Ultimately when you get people engaged in caring more about their health and wellbeing, there isn’t as much cost on health care. It has to start with the CEOs and company presidents; they have to buy into an environment of health and wellbeing. Otherwise it won’t work.

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